A Welsh History Synopsis in 20 parts by:David Walter Fortin Parts 1-4


A Welsh History Synopsis
in 20 parts
by:David Walter Fortin

Parts 1-4

Part One: The Beginning

In the beginning, there were people in Britain. This is about all that can be said with any certainty, though many scholars are working on the Stone Age cultures. According to J. Davies, there is evidence that people were living in Wales as early as 250,000 years ago. These pre-Celtic peoples were the builders of Stonehenge, the cairns and megaliths which dot the English and Welsh countryside, and were builders of hill forts. Not much is known of these folks, but it is generally accepted that it is their genetic stock which comprised the bulk of the population at the time of the arrival of the Celtic culture around 400-600 BC.

As I stated earlier, I am a medievalist, so this area of history/pre-history is a bit fuzzy for me, so if you have any questions ask Ray Karl on Celtic-L. I used the phrase "the arrival of Celtic culture" on purpose. In the earlier part of the century, most historians believed that the Celtic culture was brought by an invasion of the Celtic peoples from Gaul (the region now known as France) which supplanted the earlier peoples. Now, after new information from archeological and anthropologic studies, it is generally accepted that only a comparatively small group of Celts arrived in Britain and in one way or another, spread their culture throughout Britain and Ireland. Part of their culture was their language. Linguists have broken that language into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic.

P-Celtic was the language of the Britons and Q-Celtic the language spoken in Ireland and eventually Scotland (though that's another story!). Without getting too wrapped around your P's and Q's, suffice it to say that by the time the Romans came, all of Britain (with the exception of the Picts) was speaking P-Celtic and living a Celtic way of life.

What was the Celtic way of life? Essentially a tribal, pastoral life, led by a warrior class. The Celtic gods were worshiped, there were druids, and most folk lived either by scratch agriculture, or by caring for cattle or sheep. In the case of the land which eventually became Wales, there was far more reliance upon livestock than agriculture due to the geography of Wales.

To wrap up this posting, it is important to understand that the geography and climate of Wales has had a great impact upon its peoples. Agriculture was only possible in the river valleys and along the south coastal plain. transportation and communication were very difficult from one region to another and lead to the development of several different kingdoms, which we'll discuss at a later date. Also, due to the mountain ranges, the Welsh would look West for their trade/political/religious contacts for many years, so contact with Ireland would be important.

Some good places to start on the poetry are:
"Welsh Poems, Sixth Century to 1600", trans. by Gwyn Williams (U of California Press, 1974. "The Earliest Welsh Poetry", trans. by Joseph Clancy (London: St. Martin's Press, 1970).
It is possible to find the complete works of Dafydd ap Gwilym, Iolo Goch, "Y Gododdin", and others, but these will provide a nice introduction.

"Scratch agriculture": The most common concept of Celtic agriculture has been that the Celtic peoples used lighter plows than later folks (usually in comparison to the Anglo-Saxons) and thus preferred lighter, sandier soils for their agricultural purposes. Unfortunately, there are no plows from the pre-Roman period which have survived, and there are very, very few areas of Britain which were plowed by the Celtic peoples and not plowed by later farmers (you'd need a piece of land not plowed since the 5th C--they do exist, primarily in small areas of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex and along the Welsh border). What is believed is that they used a stick with possibly a metal end with which to break the ground, though this only made a small furrow and did not turn the earth over. This light plow could be drawn by several oxen, and based on the length of the arrangement and the number of oxen, one could go fairly deep (provided the ground was lighter and chalkier). A modern example might be the agriculture practiced in some of the third world nations of Africa today. For more info on agricultural practices, see: "Roman Britain and Early England" by Peter Hunter Blair (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1963). "Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest" by Henry Loyn (London: The Longman Press, 1962). Bear in mind that the majority of the Celtic peoples inhabiting what was to become Wales practiced animal husbandry rather than static agriculture.


Part Two: Rome

The Romans became interested in Britain after Julius Caesar had conquered Gaul. This interest was primarily defensive in nature (at least in the Roman's mind), as they were looking to discourage any raids on their newly conquered territories. Caesar tells us also "...he discovered that in almost all the wars with the Gauls assistance had been furnished to our enemy from that country [Britain]". Caesar made two landings, the first in 55 BC and the second a year later. He did not really accomplish much, other than to get some of the local leaders to agree to a treaty alliance. He also put Britain on the Roman map of future projects.

At this point, it would be very easy to get involved in the conquest of Britain by the Romans, which I do not really want to do, as it would take away the focus from Wales. Suffice it to say that the emperor Claudius conquered most of the land in the 40's AD, and that Agricola finished the job by 80 AD (at least up to the Forth-Clyde line in what is now Scotland). For some interesting reading on this, try the following: Gaius Julius Caesar "Gallic War" (there are numerous editions out) Tacitus "The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola" (my copy is in "The Complete Works of Tacitus" ed. by Moses Hadas, (New York: Random House for the Modern Library, 1942). Michael Grant, "The History of Rome" (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1979).

To continue (using mostly John Davies "A History of Wales"), the main tribes in Wales during this time period were the Silures (occupying SE Wales), the Demetae (SW Wales, Pembrokeshire, Carmarthen), the Cornovii (Montgomery), the Deceangli (Aberconwy, Colwyn, Rhuddlan), the Ordovices (Anglesey, Caernarfonshire). The Romans defeated the power of the lowland tribes first , but the Silures were proving to be a thorn in their sides, so they began to isolate the tribes of Wales from the other tribes who were resisting (due to the geography of the uplands (known to historians as the "Highland Zone"), the tribes of this area generally had a difficult time in unifying themselves/coordinating activities). Roman legions first set themselves up on the Dee in 48 AD and later Ostorius Scapula would receive the submission of the Decleangi.

The main Welsh leader during this time was Cataractus (Caradog in Welsh) who originally belonged to the Catuvellauni, but later fled to the Silures when the Catuvellauni were defeated. A fort was erected in 49 AD near what is now Gloucester. Along with this fort and a network of others brought pressure to bear upon the Silures, which forced Cataractus to flee to the Ordovices. The Romans pursued and he was defeated in 51 AD, where his wife and children were also captured. Cataractus fled to the Brigantes, but their queen turned him over to the Romans, who took him to Rome and where he supposedly made the following speech: (From Tacitus, "Annals"): "Had my moderation in prosperity been equal to my noble birth and fortune, I should have entered this city as your friend rather than as your captive; and you would not have disdained to receive, under a treaty of peace, a king descended from illustrious ancestors and ruling many nations. My present lot is as glorious to you as it is degrading to myself. I had men and horses, arms and wealth. What wonder if I parted with them reluctantly? If you Romans choose to lord it over the world, does it follow that the world is to accept slavery? Were I to have been at once delivered up as a prisoner, neither my fall nor your triumph would have become famous. My punishment would be followed by oblivion, whereas, if you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency." Tacitus tells us that Agrippina granted clemency to Cataractus and his family after this speech.

Moving along, resistance in Wales did not end with the defeat of Cataractus. The Silures were defeated by the 20th Legion in 52 AD. In 57 AD, the emperor Nero authorized a campaign to conquer all of Britain. In Wales, the main resistance was coming from Anglesey (Mona): "Now, however, Britain was in the hands of Suetonius Paulinus...He therefore prepared to attack the isle of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus, the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses. On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair disheveled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general's appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed."

The Romans were not a very nice people. This has gone on longer than I anticipated, but in a nut shell, the Romans proceeded to establish major forts at Ista (Caerleon) and Deva (Chester), with smaller, but important forts at Maridunum (Carmarthen), and Segontium (Caernarfon). They developed a network of roads in a rectangular pattern with these four forts at the corners. There were other forts/centers along the way, but these four seem to be the most important.

Part Three: Rome (continued)

Even though the tribes had submitted to Rome by the 50's, the task of completing the conquest was a long and expensive process--something which would repeat itself through the ages. Rome undertook at least 13 campaigns between 48 and 79 AD. The Roman legions had not had to face a large scale resistance utilizing guerrilla tactics based in mountainous terrain since the Samnite Wars in Italy (several hundred years previously). By utilizing such tactics, the Celtic peoples could pin down a much larger force with only a few men. In order to counter such an opponent, the Romans resorted to building a network of small camps linked by roads. Each camp would be able to subjugate a specific territory in its vicinity and could communicate easily with the next closest camp in case of emergency. Furthermore, by building and maintaining such camps, the Romans brought a permanent military presence to a specific area rather than relying on individual campaigns. I am going into this in detail, because it is this form of tactics that the English came to use nearly 1000 years later to subjugate Wales and is important in the understanding of the later Welsh military and political situation--the Welsh could lose a major campaign, but still maintain their resistance by retreating to the remote fastnesses of the mountains. There have been 35 of the above camps located by archeologists, with many being located in the lands of the Silures. In central Wales, every eastern-facing valley had its fort, and the Menai Straits (separating Anglesey from the mainland) had the powerful fort of Segontium guarding this strategic location. In terms of size, the forts at Chester and Caerleon could house up to 5,300 soldiers. That Rome had to invest in over 10,000 troops, not including those housed at the other smaller forts and camps, is an indication of the level of resistance in Wales.

To move along, by the end of the first century, most of Wales had been subjugated and some form of peace ensued. Villas were built, mines were exploited and civitae (towns) were encouraged. For the most part, the ruling classes abandoned the La Tene cultural trappings and adopted Roman ones, though aspects of La tene continued in the hands of the peasants. In terms of religion, with the armies of Rome (as opposed to Roman Armies--the armies being made up of various peoples from all over the Empire) came a variety of faiths. There were followers of the cult of Mithras in Caerleon. The old British religions still were active, with a temple built to Nodens (the god of healing) as late as 367 AD. Christianity came to Wales with the Romans, especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. The above temple dedication to Nodens is the last vestige of official pagan practice in Roman Wales. Afterwards, almost all of the upper classes had become Christian (at least in name), though the older traditions were maintained in some manner by the peasantry.

By the mid to late 300's, the situation in the Western Empire was starting to worsen. In 383, Magnus Maximus (the Macsen Wledig who shows up now and again in Welsh lore) began his campaign to unseat Gratian, the newest ruler of the West. Magnus drew his forces from Britain, marched south and was defeated on July 28, 388. Archeologists have confirmed that by 390, there were few, if any, Roman forces left in Britain. This brings us to the next phase in Welsh history, which will delineate Wales as a separate geographic entity (though by no means political) from the rest of Britain. This phase is also the fertile soil of legend.


Part Four: Pronunciation, Sources, Land and Society

Before marching forward into the Middle Ages, I feel it is necessary to discuss the sources from which we derive our knowledge of the period, as well as discussing the land forms which play such an important role in Welsh history. Along the way, I'll touch on some aspects of Welsh society for this time period.

Part Four, Chapter One: Pronunciation

Before starting all of this, I would like to take a few moments and offer a pronunciation guide for Welsh which might help some of you to get your tongues around such words as "Perfeddwlad". This is taken from "The Earliest Welsh Poetry", by Joseph Clancy (London: St. Martin's Press, 1970), pp 19-20, with some of my own additions.

The Welsh alphabet uses 28 letters: a,b,c,ch,d,dd,e,f,ff,g,ng,h,i,l,ll,m,n,o,p,ph,r,rh,s,t,u,w,y. In general, the consonants represent the same sound values as in English spelling, with these exceptions:
c: always the 'k' sound, never the 's' sound
ch: as in the Scottish 'loch'
dd: the sound represented by 'th' in 'breathe'; Welsh uses 'th' only for the sound in 'breath' (the dd=th is a longer sound).
f: equals the 'v' sound (as in 'of')
ff: English 'f' sound, as in 'off'
g: always the hard 'g' of 'guard'
ll: no English equivalent, sort of a 'tl' sound
ph: as in 'physics'
r: always trilled
rh: the trilled 'r' followed by an aspiration (imagine a Spanish speaker rolling the 'r' followed very closely by 'hh', so Rheged is pronounced 'Rrrrhheged')
s: always the sound of 'sea'.
The letter combination 'si' is used for the 'sh' sound in English, so the English 'shop' would be 'siop' in Welsh.

Welsh letters stand always for pure vowel sounds, never as in English for dipthongs.
As in English, vowel sounds can either be long or short. a: as in 'father' (long) and 'hot' (short) e: as in 'pale' (long) and 'pet' (short) i: as in 'green' (long) and 'grin' (short);
also the consonant sound represented by 'y' in English (like 'yard') is represented by the letter 'i' in Welsh (yard would be 'iard').
o: as in 'roll' (long) and 'cot' (short)
u: pronounced like the Welsh 'i' as explained above (think of the Welsh name 'Gruffudd'='Griffith' in English)
w: used as either a vowel or a consonant. As a consonant, it is like its English equivalent (like Owain); as a vowel, it takes the sound of 'oo', as in 'took' or 'tool' (think of 'Owain Glyn Dwr' = Owain Glendower)
y: in most monosyllables, like the Welsh 'i' (short), otherwise it's like the sound in English 'up'. However, when it stands alone (like the poem title "Y Gododdin"), it also sounds like the 'u' in 'up'(so 'Y Gododdin'= 'U Godothin'.)

The following are the Welsh dipthongs. The chief vowel comes first:
ae, ai, au: like English 'write'
ei, eu, ey: equals 'uh-ee'
aw: as in English 'prowl'
ew: the short Welsh 'e' followed by 'oo'
iw, yw: 'ee-oo'
wy: 'oo-ee', like calling a pig 'Soo-eee' (with the stress on the 'soo')
oe, oi, ou: like the English sound in 'oil'

IMPORTANT: The accent in Welsh is almost always placed on the second-to-last (penult) syllable (the stress is on the 'y' in Llywarch (lli wark) and the 'e' in Llywelyn (lli wel un)).

Part Four, Chapter Two: Sources

The sources for the early middle ages in Wales suck. This period is known as the Dark Ages primarily because historians are blundering around in the dark trying to figure out what happened. All joking aside, there really is little to go on, as the concept of writing history down became lost with the fall of Rome. This is a predicament which most historians, regardless of region, encounter for Western Europe. The Germanic tribes which swept the Western Empire away did not have a written tradition, their literature being mostly oral. Those peoples who were able to hold off the Germanic incursions also lost much of their written tradition, as the institutions which maintained literacy suffered severe blows. In all of the West, only Ireland really went the other direction after St. Patrick brought Christianity (and hence literacy) to the Irish, but that is another story. Here's what we do have for post-Roman Wales:

1. Gildas, "De Excidio Britanniae (Concerning the Fall of Britain)". Written around 540. This is what John Davies has to say about Gildas "Gildas is a splendid example of an irate cleric and what he offers is a sermon reviling his contemporaries, the kings of Britain, rather than a chronicle of his age. His Latin is characterized by a verbose opaqueness and he writes in a cryptic style with a host of biblical quotations." In other words, he was trying to be clever to a contemporary audience. Some things can be gleaned from Gildas, but it is a most unsatisfactory historical document.

2. "Historia Brittonum" attributed to Nennius, preserved in the Harleian manuscript (MS) 3859 and dated to 828. Unfortunately, this work is short, full of legend and pseudo-history, and not very accurate (though it is a hotbed for Arthurianism).

3. "Annales Cambriae" also found in the Harleian MS 3859, though may be contemporary as early as 768. This is a compilation of the yearly register of the monastery at St. David's in Dyfed (Pembroke). It begins in 447 and ends in 954. Unfortunately, each year is given only a few words, with the longest entry being three lines. Additionally, a compiler has been at it, so what has been added and what has been deleted will never be known.

4. "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People" by the Venerable Bede, written in 731. A very good historic document, though Bede did not like the Welsh, as they refused to accept the new dating of Easter determined by the Council of Whitby (this was a very big deal to Bede). Also, Bede was writing from a Northumbrian Saxon point of view, rather than from the Welsh.

5. "Brut y Tywysogyon (The Chronicle of the Princes)". Compiled at the Welsh monastery of Strata Florida around 1300. The original was in Latin, which was lost. We have the Welsh translation. The Brut begins in 681, with the death of Cadwalader (son of the famous Cadwallon) and ends with the death of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, brother to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last Prince) in 1282. This exceptionally important document was a compilation of earlier annals. My own best guess is that the sources used for the compilation did not become contemporary until around 1000 (due to the verbosity of the entries).

6. "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". Compiled in the 9th C, this is another key document. However, many historians have debated as to when the sources for this document became contemporary. Obviously, being the chronicle of Wessex, the Welsh are generally portrayed in the manner of enemies.

7. "The History of the Kings of Britain" by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Another work which leaves much to be desired, in terms of factual history. Written in 1136, Geoffrey was the source for the medieval writers of the Arthurian Legend. Otherwise, it is a rehash of Gildas and Nennius, with even more pseudo-history and Legend tossed in.

8. "The Kings Before the Norman Conquest" by William of Malmesbury. Written around 1145 by an English monk, this work is a bit more accurate than Geoffrey, especially since William had access to Bede and the AS Chronicle.

9. Welsh Literature: This varies from the "Mabinogion" to the poetry of Aneirin and Taliesin. Most of this work was compiled in written from in the 13th C, and as such, much of it is flawed in terms of what was originally written versus what the compiler wrote. The bulk of Aneiren's epic poem "Y Gododdin" was written in 598. Taliesin's work also is from the late 6th C, but its originality is much more dubious (see AOH Jarman's translation of "Y Gododdin"). Also included in this work is the "Mabinogion" taken from The White Book of Rhydderch, a 13th C compilation, these prose tales also may date back several centuries from the compilation. However, as with all pieces of literature, one must beware of what is poetic license and what is an actual representation of a particular time period. Did the writer set his work in a particular point in history to emphasize some point to the audience, or is he describing the actual societal situation of contemporary times?

10. Merlinic Prophecies. Not much in the way of historical help, but very important to the Welsh psyche. They are mentioned in nearly every Welsh work of importance. The concept of the Welsh as being the remnant of a great race who were very aware of their loss and the hope of one day regaining that loss are embodied in these. They can be found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, compiled around 1250.

11. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales). I won't discuss Gerald for now, but will leave him until we get to the post-Norman period.

Part Four, Chapter Three: Land and Society

I think this is important stuff to know in order to understand why the Welsh developed the way they did, as well as providing a geographic basis for future discussions. For the most part, i will be summarizing RR Davies' first chapter, 'Wales and the Welsh', from "Conquest, Coexistence and Change", augmented by David Walker's "Medieval Wales". For those of you not familiar with Prof. Davies' work, the first chapter should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in Welsh society, regardless of which time period you are looking at. Wonderful stuff!

In terms of land, the chief feature of Wales is the fact that the vast majority of the territory is above 600 feet in elevation. What this means in terms of agriculture and the growth of society is that the majority of the population will be centered in the river valleys and the coastal lowlands (the population fixing itself on the fertile, arable soil) and that those who were not living in these regions would most likely be practicing animal husbandry.

Due to the difficulties of communication and travel within Wales, the political sphere was decentralized into localities which were more important in terms of governance and identification than the larger political expressions. Additionally, there was no position of 'high king' or bretweald, as the Irish or Saxons were to have. Though wales itself was to be a well-known geographic expression by the 13th C,outside of a common language and society, the people of Wales had no conception or inclination towards unity. Those few kings who were able to do so, only achieved their ends through force and their gains quickly were lost after their deaths.

from Davies, pg. 12: "Wales, therefore, was a geographically fragmented country, a land of contrasts national, regional, and local. In such a fragmented country it was the locality or district which was often the most meaningful and basic unit of loyalty and obligation. 'Gwlad' (plural, gwladoedd gwledydd) or 'bro' (pl broydd, brooedd) were the loose vernacular terms used to refer to such a distric. A gwlad might be a kingdom or a former kingdom; alternatively or additionally, it might coincide with the local subdivisions of 'cantref' (pl cantrefi = cantrev in English) or cwmwd (pl cymydau = commote in English) which came to figure prominently in the history of medieval Wales. Yet it is not its political or administrative identity which gave the gwlad its cohesion so much as the fact that it was a territorial unit shaped by geography, history, and sentiment, and one which contemporaries recognized and with which they could identify... "It was the region, large or small, which was often the most obvious focus of communal identity and loyalty for many of its inhabitants. Its boundaries demarcated the horizons of their social contacts and territorial claims, its mother church and its patron saint the focus of their religious affections, its traditions and lore the framework of their collective memories. This attachment to region was all the stronger in a world where political hegemonies and dynastic fortunes were so brittle..."

Prof. Davies states it better than I can, so pardon for the lengthy quote. Along with the regionality, one of the other factors which effected Welsh disunity, was the practice of partibility. What this means is that the inheritance of the father is divided equally amongst his sons. This has obvious ramifications for ruling dynasties, but was made worse by Welsh law which recognized the legitimacy of bastards. the 'Brut' is filled with the deaths and maimings of relatives by claimants to the thrones of the Welsh kingdoms.

What I would like to do next is something which is not often done in history texts. I would like to take you on a virtual orientation of medieval Wales. This will be brief, but I hope that it will make the future postings more accessible for those of you not familiar with the period. My only disclaimer is that I have never been to Wales myself, so any errors in what follows are due to my own misreading of the texts.

The mountains we have been discussing are the Cambrian Mountains, a chain stretching from the southwest peninsula to the northeast of Wales. The mountain massif also extends to the mid south of Wales, but not all the way to the coast regions. Snowdon, in the northwest rises to an elevation of 3,560 fee. The chief river valleys are: The Conwy in the north; the Clwyd in the northeast; the Dee in the northeast with the Roman legionary city of Chester on its banks; The Mawddach and Dyfi in the west central region, both flowing into the Cardigan bay; the Teifi in the south-central west coast, also flowing into Cardigan Bay; the Tywi, flowing south into the Severn Sea, the Usk in the south east, the Wye, also in the southeast and which marks the southeastern border; and finally the Severn which begins in the central mountains and then wraps in a large loop through southeastern England before flowing into a massive estuary called the Severn Sea. The chief locations were Cardiff on the Severn Sea; Caerleon on the Usk; Dinfwr on the Tywi; Llandaff outside of Cardiff; Carmarthen in the southwest; St. David's on the extreme southwest peninsula; Cardigan on the Teifi; Caernarfon, on the Menai Straits separating Anglesey from the mainland; Bangor, on the north end of the Menai Straits. Politically, the following divisions were fairly consistent: Gwynedd (northwest); The Four Cantrevs (north east), consisting of Rhos, Tegeingl, Dyffryn Clwd, and Rhufoniog; Powys (East Central); Ceredigion (west central); Deheubarth (south west) consisting of the following sub-kingdoms: Dyfed, Cantref Mawr, Cantref Bychan, Gower (Deheubarth was in and out of existance several times); Brycheiniog (south east highlands); Morgannwg (south east coastal) and Gwent (extreme southeast).

Welsh history Parts 5-9 >>


[ The Description of Wales by Geraldus Cambrensis originally written in 1194, this text is from the 1912 J. M. Dent edition.]

[ A Short history of Wales by Owen M. Edwards ]

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